Over the past three weeks, I have been slowly de-evolving in front of my television set, but I think it's been time well spent. I've been watching four really well constructed comedies (two British, two American), and I would recommend any of them to anyone, though they are in my order of preference. Enjoy my thoughts on Black Books, Sports Night, Coupling, and How I Met Your Mother.
Easily the best thing I watched these past two weeks, Black Books follows the ridiculous friendship of Bernard, an Irish drunk who owns the main setting book shop, Manny, Bernard's man-child assistant, and Fran, their next-door shop owner who is seemingly the most normal of the three. Luckily, this is a British show so the complete series (3 seasons, 6 episodes each) is available as one purchase, and I was able to experience the whole show in a short amount of time. To get a sense of the show, I recommend the following Youtube links (unfortunately, the embedding feature is unavailable): Bernard and Manny write a children's story about an elephant and a lost balloon, Bernard invites Mormons into his shop as to avoid doing his taxes, and my favorite bit, Bernard gets locked out of his shop and works at a fast food place for a bit. For those of you who enjoy British comedy, a lot of the guest stars will seem familiar to you. There's Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Lucy Davis (all from Shaun of the Dead, though Davis might be most famous for The Office), and David Williams, of Little Britain fame.
I highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys clever writing. The show's structure is a bit like Coupling (see below) in that each episode has a theme to which each scene relates. There are references galore (early on there's a brilliant moment where Bernard has to create his own wine and Manny plays Igore to his Frankenstein), but have no doubt about it, Bernard is absolutely the reason to watch this show. He's bitter, rude, filthy, and his misanthropic retorts make Dr. Gregory House look like a cuddle bunny. Dylan Moran (also of Shaun of the Dead) is so gut-bustingly funny as Bernard that you don't even mind that he's the worst human being on the planet. Also, a fun game to play is spotting new additions to the set dressing. The sign for the shop constantly changes, going from "Closed/Closed" to "Closopened," and the chalk board's edits include "No Cell Phones" to "Don't Do That!" Really fantastic show.
I tried watching this show a few years ago, but I couldn't get past the overall feel of the show. The laugh track annoyed me, and the slapstick pacing distracted me. It felt like a set. Also, Jeremy (Josh Malina of that other Aaron Sorkin show The West Wing) and Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd of Sliders) really bugged me with their high-energy performances. (If I knew either one of them in real life, I would probably punch them.) But trying the show a second time, I've come around to really enjoy the characters and their relationships. It's an easy show to watch episodes back-to-back, and they're only 22 minutes long, so you can watch six episodes for the duration of one movie.
This show really exceeds with Sorkin's writing (no surprise there). The conversational banter is realistic but still clever enough that you take mental notes of the retorts to use later. And the Casey-Dana relationship works extremely well because Sorkin avoids the obnoxious trend of will-they-or-won't-they of having the two leads ignore their feelings. Instead, these two characters know of their feelings and address their issues with one another. But more than anything, I'm impressed with Josh Malina's ability to carry a monologue, as evidenced by this scene (with Sorkin's self-righteousness written all over it): Jeremy explains why hunting is "just mean" and not a sport. Also, as a liberal, I agree with most of what Sorkin preaches (especially Isaac's speech -- near the end of the clip -- regarding the confederate flag), and I enjoy the B-storyline inclusion of moralistic narratives (like Dan's "public apology" for saying that marijuana shouldn't have the same punishment as harder crimes). I'm only through season one, but I certainly look forward to the rest of the series (like Black Books, the whole series can be found in one set). I know that smart writing is always in store.
Coupling (Series 1)
A friend introduced me to this, and honestly, my face hurt from laughing so much. British comedy can be more sexually aggressive because they don't have to use allusive metaphors for masturbation, threesomes, and porn addictions. For instance, you probably wouldn't see the following clip on American TV, though it's incredibly well written: Jeff hits on a woman who doesn't speak English. And Jeff is absolutely the reason to watch this show (and it's sad that actor Richard Coyle is replaced with a different character in the fourth season), and though the other characters aren't annoying or aggravating or anything, I keep hoping that Patrick will grow beyond his libido and that Sally will be more than a shrill complainer. But still, the situations are wonderfully set up, and the character relations are so much more natural and realistic than Friends or Seinfeld or any other American comedy. I'm only at the end of season one (though I've seen episodes from later seasons), but I should be done with the series in a few weeks. It's the type of show to keep handy for bad days or lazy weekends or low-key get-togethers.
How I Met Your Mother (Season 1)
Wow, Ted is not annoying in the first season. The reason I like this show -- and why I liked only the first few seasons of Friends -- is that the characters actually laugh when someone is being ridiculous or says something funny. And most of the reaction shots (minus Ted's) are natural. Although Ted is less annoying in the beginning, Lily is more so, but it's a comfort to know she's toned down later in the series. And of course, Barney steals the show, but don't overlook Robin or Marshall because they crack me up the most. Robin's the "normal" one and she's probably weirder than any of them, and Marshall's random singing is quite contagious. I particularly liked the "Slutty Pumpkin" episode and thought it was sweet. Ted spends every Halloween atop his building hoping for a woman he met years ago at that party, and he acknowledges that he doesn't really expect her to be there. He's just holding on to the hope that there's someone out there for him. This episode represents the show, I think. Barney was at his ridiculous horny best (and had the best intro with the Top Gun theme), and Robin defended her right to be a "me" instead of a "we", while Lily and Marshall's nicknames for each other (Lily Pad and Marshmallow) really summed up their coupledom. So yeah. This is a sweet show, and I definitely enjoy it, but it's not anywhere near brilliant or clever.